Thank god for you language-loving readers, because otherwise, who would appreciate the wild joy I felt today on finding Andrew Dalby’s A Guide to World Language Dictionaries? This book has been out for five years now, and I never knew about it; why don’t publishers notify me immediately when they publish things so central to my concerns? This lists the best dictionaries available for around 300 languages, from Abkhaz to Zulu, and like Dalby’s equally wonderful Dictionary of Languages, it combines attention to detail with discursive descriptions in an irresistible way. The Introduction says:
For about half the world’s known languages there is probably some kind of published word-list or dictionary. For many of the better-known languages there is a large number of dictionaries to choose from, some of them simply in competition with one another, some dealing with a language variety, some offering different approaches to the same material. The catalogue of a large research library will include many thousands of language dictionaries.
This book is therefore very selective. The aim is to pick out those dictionaries that offer something more than a simple list of words placed along brief equivalents (‘glosses’) in another language…. [M]ost of the dictionaries listed here are likely to retain some value whatever else is published in their field. Typically, they not only list the vocabulary but also document it. They cite sources of information, oral or printed, and often quote them at length to show how a word is or was used. They suggest word origins, or discuss them at length with references to earlier scholarly work. They identify the special registers in which a word is used; they date its first or last recorded occurrence, and they supply the evidence to back up the dating.
This makes them among the most compelling of reference books. In many of the dictionaries listed here, every single article reports the results of original research, and each successive letter of the alphabet has taken years of labour to complete. Some, including the Oxford English Dictionary, can fairly be described as the greatest single literary enterprises in their language.
All right, that last sentence may be an overstatement, but if you can’t imagine thinking it in the rapture of poring through those closely printed Victorian pages, this book may not be for you. But if you have an unquenchable love for dictionaries and greedily collect them, I hope you can manage to at least find a copy in the library, because it will give you the same sort of vicarious thrill as travel guides that provide maps and lists of noteworthy sights in Samarkand, Isfahan, Timbuktu…
An example at random, from the SAMOYEDIC LANGUAGES section:
Nordische Reisen und Forschungen von M.A. Castrén. 1853-62. 12 vols.
[Northern travels and researches of M.A. Castrén.] The result of two epic journeys in Arctic Russia and Siberia in 1842-4 and 1845-9. ‘We can follow his activities in his “Reiseberichte” and “Reiseerinnerungen”, which not only make very interesting reading, but at the same time are very valuable from ethnographical, geographical, historical and linguistic points of view. From these works we can see what superhuman will power and what self-sacrificing, heroic devotion to learning went into the preparation of the Samoyed grammar and dictionary. A Samoyed from Kanin, who happened to be in Finland, was a great help to him in this work. In 1851 he won the newly constituted chair of the Finnish language at Helsinki University. At this point Castrén was again stricken by his long ailment in 1852, and ended his earthly career after a few weeks of suffering. He was unable to complete the major fruit of his journey of several years, the Samoyed grammar. Castrén’s family sent the manuscripts he left behind to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which entrusted his good friend Anton Schiefner with their publication’ (Péter Hajdú, The Samoyed peoples and languages, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963, pp. 84-5, abridged). The collection includes:
Grammatik der samojedischen Sprachen [Grammar of the Samoyed languages], 1854, in which the phonology of Nganasan, Enets, Selkup and Kamassian were completed by Schiefner. Verb morphology and syntax were never completed.
Wörterverzeichnisse aus den samojedischen Sprachen [Word-lists from the Samoyed languages], 1855.
Oh, and I should add that for languages that don’t use the standard Roman alphabet, an alphabet is provided (so the researcher will know proper alphabetical order), and all titles are given in the native alphabet as well as in transcription. Maybe you can resist; I couldn’t.